Happy 45th Anniversary to Al Green’s Al Green Gets Next to You, originally released August 14, 1971.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are gathered here today to not only celebrate the 45th anniversary of Al Green’s Al Green Gets Next to You LP, but to witness the beginning of an incredibly prolific run as one the best voices in rhythm-and-blues.
After the deaths of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding in 1964 and 1967 respectively, there really was no male singer who could deliver the goods as soulfully and as beautifully as they could. Marvin Gaye’s life off wax was an extremely volatile opera that lent heft and depth to his music, but at times overshadowed what was on wax. Stevie Wonder was a musical genius who simply went about the business of creating a musical planet in which he was the sole inhabitant for the next decade.
Prior to Gets Next to You, Green released Green Is Blues, which was the first album that paired him with his brilliant producer Willie Mitchell. The album was a creative blend of Memphis Soul and countrified blues, a combination that would be further tweaked and fine-tuned just in time for the arrival of Gets Next to You. It is this album that began the transformation of the name Al Green from a proper noun into a verb which defined his unique sound.
Green’s sound can be best described as taking the soft and tender elements of Cooke’s vocals and combining them with the subtle growl of Redding. Mixed in with those elements is the superior musicianship of The Hi Rhythm Section, the house band for Mitchell’s Hi Records. The band included The Hodges Brothers, Charles (organ), Leroy (bass) and Teenie (guitar). Rounding out the crew was drummer Howard Grimes. Until his death in 1975, Booker T & The MGs’ drummer Al Jackson, Jr. would occasionally fill in for Grimes.
Much of the success of Gets Next to You is due to the subtle changes made in Green’s vocal style at the suggestion of Mitchell, who found that he was trying to sound too much like Cooke or Jackie Wilson. “I listened to Mahalia Jackson, all the great gospel singers,” Green reflected to New York Magazine. “But the most important music to me was those hip-shakin’ boys: Wilson Pickett and Elvis Presley. I just loved Elvis Presley. Whatever he got, I went out and bought.”
The lead track is a totally re-worked cover version of the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You.” Green’s very measured and deliberate vocal performance is the polar opposite of Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards’ throaty, pleading shouts of a man who clearly did not get what has asking for. Green takes the song from a place of desperation and pulls you right into the pulpit for a little sermon. He proceeds to testify to the congregation and lay out the case for why this woman should get next to him. The track also gives the listener a reason to stick around and hear more. Now that’s how you open an album.
The next track is a cover of Freddie Scott’s 1967 hit, “Are You Lonely for Me, Baby?” This song solidifies Green’s reputation as a solid interpreter of other people’s work. It also establishes The Hi Rhythm Section as a tight band that complements his vocal performance. If the horn section sounds familiar, that’s because it is none other than the Memphis Horns, who brought their signature Stax sound to many recordings on the Hi label in the ‘70s.
“God Is Standing By” is the third track and it speaks to Green’s connection to the church. Over the years, many have mistakenly assumed that Green found God in 1974 after a tragic incident with a girlfriend that began with her pouring a pan of boiling hot grits on his back and ended with her committing suicide. Green has often cited this incident as a call for him to change his life, but there have always been mentions or acknowledgements of God in his music.
Track four is Green’s composition “Tired of Being Alone,” which reached number 11 on the pop singles chart. In addition to being his biggest hit to date at the time, it solidified Green as a composer to be reckoned with. The opening guitar and horn riff produces a sound that just puts you in a good place. Once you hear it, there’s a warmth that just washes over you even though the song is about a man pleading his case to a lost love. Green manages to position himself as vulnerable yet strong. Excellent songwriting. The strongest track on the album, “Tired of Being Alone” has never felt dated at any point. It was a sign of great things to come on Green’s later releases.
Tracks five and six are “I’m a Ram” and “Driving Wheel” bring us to the midway point of the album. These songs are showcases for the Hi Rhythm Section to flex their muscles and deliver a perfect example of what Memphis soul is all about. The vocals, organ, horn & guitar all act in concert to hammer out a funky, mid-tempo groove that leads to us into track seven which sounds very familiar, but not for the reason you may think.
It’s a cover of The Doors “Light My Fire.” This song has been covered by many, from Jose Feliciano to Shirley Bassey (you need to check out her version, if you haven’t already. It kills). Green’s version sounds familiar because it sounds very similar to his 1973 single “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” which was included on his Call Me LP. “Light My Fire” is yet another (possibly inadvertent) peek into Al Green’s future.
“You Say It,” “Right Now, Right Now,” and “All Because” round out this wonderful album. Gets Next to You is a great introduction to Al Green’s discography. It’s emblematic of that moment when most great artists begin an impressive streak of creativity that separates them from the rest of the pack. While Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were off creating their own universes, Al Green was carving out his own little space, rooted in Memphis, Tennessee.